Elizabeth Strout never writes a bad novel. When I started to read Lucy by the Sea, her latest, I was taken aback to find it is set during the pandemic; something I have avoided. But I was soon immersed in the life of Lucy Barton and her relocation from New York to a small seaside town in Maine. My misgivings about lockdown were reduced because this is a Strout novel. She doesn’t write about the pandemic – apart from occasional mentions of masks and vaccines – she writes about people. This is a finely-judged story about ageing, about grief [new and long-lived], about secrets within families and self-denial of difficult truths. Lucy moves into a large house outside the town of Crosby, not because she planned it, but because her ex-husband William persuades her it will be safer than the city. There they discover new and old acquaintances and reacquaint themselves with each other. William is recently separated; Lucy was widowed a year earlier. Both feel their age and are anxious about the subtle changes, but don’t like admitting it to themselves or anyone else.
Through Lucy’s eyes as she reflects on her own life, and that of her children and family, we see how childhood poverty never leaves you even if you leave that poverty behind. How marriage turbulence is sometimes negotiable, and sometimes terminal. How education saved her but didn’t save her sister or brother, and how she was for years blind to that inequality. It is thought-provoking stuff. Honest. Painful. It makes you consider your own life and how you see it through blinkers gained through your personal experience.
Strout’s novels are all inter-twined through character and place, but always with a light touch. If this is the first Strout book you pick up, please read it. This is not a series, there is no first and last book to be read in order. It is an ensemble. If it were theatrical, it would be a repertory company. The pandemic-forced move to Crosby takes Lucy out of her comfort zone, away from friends, and she rubs shoulders with people she wouldn’t normally meet. As we see Lucy age from novel to novel, Lucy by the Sea highlights her new vulnerability and anxiety as she and William work out how to handle the awkward elements of getting old.
This is a more political novel than any of Strout’s previous work. The pandemic setting makes this inevitable. There is a shadow of mask v anti-mask, resident v incomer, plus brief mentions of George Floyd and storming of the Capitol on January 6. But this is not overt and always put into Lucy’s context. Strout places her characters in a time of disruption, fear and death. For everyone who lived through it, the surreal isolation forced by pandemic lockdown was an opportunity for consideration, re-evaluation and truth. A gift for a novelist with the powers of Elizabeth Strout.
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Read my reviews of these other books by Elizabeth Strout:-
AMY & ISABELLE
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON
If you like this, try:-
‘CURTAIN CALL’ BY ANTHONY QUINN
‘A TRAVELLER AT THE GATES OF WISDOM’ BY JOHN BOYNE
‘SHRINES OF GAIETY’ BY KATE ATKINSON
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
LUCY BY THE SEA by @LizStrout #bookreview https://wp.me/p2ZHJe-65D via @SandraDanby